I really believe that breaking nutrition guidance down to its “simplest terms and most convenient definitions” (to quote Anthony Michael Hall’s letter to Mr. Vernon from The Breakfast Club). The reason for this being that complicating health claims is part of big ag’s strategy in getting us to buy their food. When nutritional advice gets to compilcated and extreme, most people will throw up their hands and eat what is convenient and tastes good.
“Listen to your body” is a piece of advice that is used as a way of simplifying health advice. It’s a wonderful concept. Our bodies know what’s best for us, and all we have to do is listen. However, our bodies internal voice telling us what to eat to keep us alive is still geared towards a world in which there is no such thing as highly-processed food and industrial agriculture.
That’s the issue with listening to your body. Instinctual eating doesn’t work the same way it used to. Processed food is quite literally engineered, mainliy through the addition of salt, sugar, and condensed/isolated fats, to hijack our evolutionary instincts. We souldn’t need nutritional guidance to eat healthy. Our bodies already know how to eat healthy. We evolved for thousands of years to live off the food that was available to us: Whole foods, mostly plant foods. What happens, then, when in the last 100 years, the food landscape changes so drastically that our evolutionary wisdom is left far behind?
Our bodies are hard-wired to seek out foods that are energy-dense (i.e. calorie-dense), because food did not used to come to us in such abundance. The food industry has taken advantage of this by creating food-like products that trigger our sensory instincts to seek out such food. Our instincts aren’t evolved to understand the health hazards of added oil, processed sugar, processed flour, and salt which are added to pretty much everything today.
However, I still believe that “listen to your body” can be useful advice if done with care.
Michael Taylor of mindbodygreen published an article in 2013 about how to listen to your body when your body seems to be telling you the wrong thing. He writes, “maybe I feel like eating cookies instead of going for a run right now. Good, this is a plan I can follow! But I thought this was suppoed to get me healthy. And as much as I love cookies, I’m pretty sure my cookie-tarian diet isn’t going to get me there.” So what do we do about it? Our evolutionary instincts are very, very strong in shaping our decisions. However, with knowledge and know-how, it’s possible to overcome the mismatch between our evolutionary instincts and the modern-day reality of processed food.
Here are my considerations for listening to your body in the fast food era.
1. Survival cravings
As I’ve already mentioned, we crave certain foods because they trigger our survival instinct. Back before industrial agriculture and shipping food around the country, food was not available in such abundance. We ate when we could, which wasn’t always often. Furthermore, we were attracted to food that was particularly energy-dense (like the sugar found in fruit and the fat found in nuts and seeds).
Nowadays, there is way, way more food than people to eat that food. Nonetheless, food companies still make it their goal to get you to eat more and more, thus they add sugar, fat, and salt to food to get your body to think it needs more.
In my experience, when I analyze a craving, I almost never crave food that doesn’t have some form of added sugar (which can come in many forms), fat (oil, butter, cheese), or salt. The challenge for me in going plant-based is not removing animal products, but removing condensed sugar and fat (and if you think about it, there’s almost no meat dish that isn’t cooked in oil, butter, or lard, and then sprinkled with salt).
2. Surface-level vs. deep cravings
In his article on this subject, Michael Taylor notes the difference between surface-level psychology and deeper feelings in the core of our being. Surface-level psychology produces busy thoughts and feelings without acknowledging the underlying deep feelings.
Taylor writes, “We run about collecting all kinds of information and advice. We think it’s critical to proper decision-making! But sometimes decisions don’t come … Luckily, ther’s this other kind of feeling. It’s not paralyzing, it’s activating”
In listening to your body, search for the deep feeling of trusting your gut, not the surface-level craving for that cookie or that french fry.
3. Acknoweldge the external pressures
In my experience, part of listening to your body is moving focus from the external stimuli to the internal feeling.
There is all kinds of pressure beyond just a craving for a food that lead to decisions which we know deep down we don’t want to make. Here’s two examples:
- Commercials and flashy packaging can make it incredibly difficult to listen to your body. Just look at this new cringe-worthy commercial for diet coke:
- Social pressure makes it ridiculously hard to listen to your body. When everyone else is eating french fries, it’s so easy to just say “I’ll start eating healthy tomorrow.”
Don’t look to marketing or friends for what’s best for you. Listening to your body means going internal. I ask myself, “why do I feel like eating this when I know long-term it’s not good for me?” The answer to that question often has to do with something external to myself. Also, it can be helpful to discuss with friends and family how you are trying to eat, why it’s important to you, and how they can be helpful. That creates a sense of social support rather than social pressure
4. SLOW DOWN!
We all have busy lives. We eat on the go, we eat while we read, we eat while we watch TV and we eat while we talk to other people, (hence the social pressures). Food is fast. Listening to your body is hard when you don’t have time to listen. What’s the solution?
Look at your food. Think about what’s in it. Think about what went into making it. Think about how it will effect you once it makes its way past your taste buds. Take the time to cook your own food. Garden. Read about food. Learn about food.
Maybe even eat a meal by yourself with no books, no TV, no music. Just you and the food. It can be a weird kind of meditational practice that revitalizes the relationship between human and the substance that literally keeps us alive.
Sometimes we don’t want to think about what’s in our food, so we follow our surface-level psychology and eat what tastes good and what is convenient. However, the same thing applies to when people don’t have time to think.
Slow down. Take a breath. Listen to your body.
5. Don’t be too hard on yourself
Madison wrote a post about this guy James Clear who is an awesome psychologist who writes about willpower. One of his tips is to have an “if/then” plan for when things don’t go perfectly. For example, if I eat a cookie with lunch, then I’ll have a salad for dinner. That’s perhaps an over-simplified example, but the idea is there nonetheless: Have a plan for when things go wrong.
Listening to your body in the age of fast and processed food, commercialism, consumerism, busy schedules, social pressures… It’s really freaking hard. So in striving for a nutritional goal, we will fail. Possibly a lot.
But that does not make us failures.
And on that weirdly sentimental note, I will end this post for today.
Slow down. Take a breath. Listen.